“Sometimes you’ve gotta burn it all down to rebuild it.”
Farhat Ahmad and Brittney Wilson of Marietta City Schools in Georgia are erasing the “dumping ground” stigma of alternative high schools by tapping their vast stores of energy, enthusiasm, fresh ideas and passion for truly connecting with students.
Recognized by the governor for his leading-edge practices, Ahmad is the district’s director of Marietta Alternative Placement and Services, or MAPS. Wilson, an educational leadership veteran and the district’s executive director of Innovative Practices, has dedicated her career to addressing the needs of all students. At SmartBrief’s recent STEM Pathways Summit, the educators shared how to use technical education as a pathway to success for students at risk for dropping out.
When Wilson came to MAPS three years ago, only one student had graduated from the program in the previous five years. She discovered it was because the students didn’t view a high-school diploma as a carrot but as an irrelevant piece of paper. Recent state legislation allowed her to take away the stick of two years of high-school classes and replace them with dual-education tech-school classes that would earn students a promising career instead of a dead-end job.
Ahmad came on board after successful work with a College Park, Ga., alternative school, a stint as a special-education teacher and a previous law enforcement career on a gangs and narcotics task force — a background that has helped immensely with MAPS students, 70% of whom are affiliated with a gang and 100% of whom have been in the criminal justice system and have been suspended long-term from their middle or high school. As a cop, meeting people in such circumstances meant arresting them; as an educator, it means “I meet them on their worst day and try to rebuild them,” he says.
Create an environment for success
The key to helping such students, they say, is changing your perspective of alternative education. “The name itself is alternative, so make it an alternative — make it a viable option for students. Don’t consider it a dead end. … Make it a place where kids can be successful,” Wilson says.
In their few short years in MAPS, the duo have maintained a 100% graduation rate, except for those they’ve lost to jail or prison.
Ahmad and Wilson shared the realizations and strategies that have helped them — and their students.
Don’t assume the worst
Most students aren’t leaving school because they want the latest shoes or electronics; they’re trying to help mom pay the rent or help siblings eat dinner, Wilson says. Their problems in school, and in life, often come from never having anyone who was there for them every day, who told them they were proud or that they did a good job.
“They’re constantly hearing they’re bad, [that] they’re never going to amount to anything. Not only from their parents but also from [some of] their educators,” she says.
Ahmad concurs: “It’s hard to see everyday: these kids who are hurting. It’s hard to know what to do. Because you can’t adopt everyone. You can’t give them privilege. You can’t reinvent their lives and write a blank check.”
Break down barriers
Many students have had trouble with the structure of regular school. “So everything I found wrong with the traditional class period, I got rid of. There’s no bells. There’s no schedules. It’s just show up. We figure out what your plan is today. I don’t know if you’re going to show up tomorrow, but we figure out what your plan is for today, and we go from there. Everything is data-informed and qualitative and quantitative. I micromanage it on a daily basis,” Ahmad says.
He and Wilson start the year with a 45-minute, computerized quiz that reveals students’ interests, social-emotional level, personality and potential careers and helps start an important dialogue to get to know each student.
The conversations have no script. “I’m not doing a rap or dancing with everyone and being someone I’m not. Just talk with everyone. When someone is losing hope, I can latch on to that personal connection,” Ahmad says.
He and Wilson may see poverty, gangs and drugs on the surface. As they dig deeper, they’re likely to find social-emotional distress and undiagnosed mental illness — “despondency and loneliness from having no one and being completely self-sustainable” or having frustrated parents pawn them off on a relative or coping with a mom who has a drug dependency.
Working on social and emotional skills is vital. Wilson and Ahmad often talk with students — especially those who are in rival gangs — about reining in emotions and knowing that people are “always going to start stuff with you,” but it’s how you react that matters. Every day brings new ways of modeling and explaining options.
Students without successful role models at home may have no idea what options exist or how to use them. Imagine never having been to an airport and being told to figure it out on your own the first time. Or being asked to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid when you’ve never even heard of it.
Wilson and Ahmad don’t just tell a student to take a test or download a form or pursue a certificate; “we sit with them, and we give them as much support as humanly possible,” Ahmad says. “We’re like helicopter parents to a group of at-risk youth. We do what we’ve got to do because we have to. They’re not going to be successful if we don’t.”
Light the path to a future they want
Students who roll their eyes at talk of a four-year degree and a life as a lawyer or engineer pay more attention when they hear about the futility of frequent dead-end jobs and the very real attainability of technical training and a career. Technical courses cost money, but through MAPS, they’re free. Without that lifeline, most of the students would never make it to technical school.
Instead of talking down to students, Ahmad and Wilson speak the truth:
“This pipe dream of actor, rapper, professional basketball player — that’s going to be an uphill battle. We have to talk realistic goals. I’m not saying that you’re not gonna make that money. I’m just saying you need a realistic plan, and I can help you achieve that,” Ahmad tells them. “We’re like, ‘Here bro’, these are job skills. Take it. This can be your life if you want it. You can legitimately do that.”
“We all have different paths to get to success. So it’s helping them get on that path, whatever success looks like for them,” Wilson says.
They help students explore possibilities: What are you good at? What have you done? What’s available? What could I be?
When one student shared his passion about the lowrider car and truck culture, Ahmad learned more about it so he could help. “It was a big part of his identity. Who could not try to enable that?” Ahmad pointed out the path to owning an auto shop to create the vehicles and helped the student work toward an auto repair certificate. Now the person who once skirted the gang lifestyle is working on his second certificate.
“When we talk tech ed, a glimpse of hope for them is that ‘I’m going to do something that I like to do and get paid for it.’ Finding and connecting those two pieces and then helping them be better at what they want to do gives them hope,” Wilson says.
Build a team and a sense of family
Ahmad and Wilson work with anyone and everyone who can help make a difference for students, turning parents into partners and teaming up with police officers to help keep students out of jail.
Dedicated parent liaisons — especially those who can speak other languages — “are like a bridge,” Ahmad says. “They don’t just translate. They also bring this emotional, social and cultural bridge so the parents feel included.”
They work with the juvenile court judge and district attorney, so, if a student does get arrested, they can try to avoid a consequence that would keep them out of school and push them further behind.
A local gang task force member has come to one of the regular “family meetings” they have with students. He told the students what he’d seen and experienced as a special forces soldier in Iraq, and it resonated with some students who have seen the worst in their own neighborhoods. The officer handed out his phone number, and some now reach out to him for help — or just to talk — because they see him on a human rather than adversarial level.
“We’re trying to reframe their view of authority figures: You’re justified in how you feel, but you don’t have to carry hate in your heart today,” Ahmad says.
A progressive outlook
If Wilson and Ahmad see something they need or want — from the district to the community to the government — they ask. “No one has said no to us yet, so we just keep asking,” they say.
They refuse to stop reinventing the wheel to make it better. “A wheel is pointless when everyone else around me is on a freakin’ plane. If you want equity, we’re going to have to work on something past the wheel,” Ahmad says.
“Sometimes you’ve gotta burn it all down to rebuild it.”
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